By Ardain Isma
Having the talent that stands out is what it takes these days to be noticed as an artist. Usually, having distinct traits—something that sheds uniqueness—is the catalyst behind great successes. This assertion goes for anyone who is trying to break through, for the barriers are enormous. The challenges for our Caribbean artists operating in North America stem from what seems to be the insurmountable odds, a sharp cliff they have to climb to reach their artistic plateaus. But this sad reality has already been factored in. Success can only be achieved through authentic devotions and relentless tries. Perhaps, that is one of the main reasons why triumph feels so sweet. Those who have come to win are always those who did not quit.
Sherlee Skai is one of the promising Haitian artists who believe in this holistic creed. Sherlee believes humanity would have lost its true synthesis if success were a clear boulevard upon which anyone can ride. As you will see in this candid conversation with Dr. Ardain Isma, Sherleee Skai is adamant about being consistent. One may not be prolific, but he NEEDS to be relentless, she thinks. She has the charm, the voice and the artistic talent to make it happen. ____________________________________________________________________________
AI: Bonjour Sherlee, it’s a pleasure to have you here at CSMS Magazine. I must say that your story itself is one that can be framed into a story book. Could you please introduce yourself to our readership?
SS: Hello to all the readers of CSMS, I’m Sherlee Skai, singer/songwriter. I was born and raised in Haiti and moved to the United States 7 years ago. I started singing in church at the age of 12, and ever since music has been my life passion. I’ve recently decided to fully pursue my dream, and I am now recording my debut album Toutouni, (Naked in English) that will be out hopefully in March.
AI: It seems like your style is an attempt to redirect the debate over what constitutes a true synthesis of Haitian/Caribbean traditional music. Is that correct?
SS: I love innovation. I love being different. Our Haitian music is a testament to our ability to reach a higher level in music or anything else. It is true that I choose a style of music that isn’t typical to what Haitian artists go for, but my inspiration isn’t a choice, at least not a conscious one. Growing up, my influences in music were very diverse and I think that my music is a mixed of all these different styles. Ou manke’m does have a folk feel as well, although it is mainly a jazz record. My album actually has an interesting Haitian folk influence on it, but my music does not have a category where you can easily place it, and that is the result of all the different artists I admired growing up.
AI: Your other song Jew’m is of similar genre. It’s a love song through a filtered Jazz reminiscent to the style of Yanick Etienne in Mistè Damou. You may not agree to this, but isn’t it fair to say that your intake frames two ends of a continuum rather than a dichotomy?
SS: I actually agree. I have a great deal of respect for our traditional genres and I also honor them in my work, but of course there is always room for change. In fact, my album will be more of an “old-meet-new” type of deal.
AI: In one of our earlier conversations, you made reference to other songs in your repertoire that feed that traditional genre. Can you name some of them?
SS: On the album, titles like On ti pawol and Van an vire are mainly of the traditional style.
AI: How did you get to be exposed to R&B/Jazz? Is there a particular American artist that helps influence your style? If yes, who is he/she? Under what circumstances were you exposed to his/her music?
SS: Lauren Hill is my idol! Of course her work with Wyclef Jean and Fugees made her very well-known in the Haitian community, and that’s how I got to know her music and my admiration for her never stops.
AI: In literature as well as in music, there are two kinds of success: artistic and commercial. Very few artists from a Caribbean perspective have come to conquer both, whether in North America or in Europe. Could you please tell the readers of what would constitute success to you?
SS: I aim for both. The artistic aspect gives you a certain respect, while the commercial one pays the bills (laughter!). Maybe I will not get rich doing music, but if I can live decently while doing what I love, then—with all honesty—that’s a blessing. If an artist only cares about the commercial part, he/she risks losing it all and may perhaps forget about the reason why he/she has embarked upon this journey in the first place. However, it’s impossible to survive solely with the artistic aspect of the game. Thus, a balance between artistic and commercial is the ideal choice, I think.
AI: It’s been said for an artist to reach his zenith, he must have an engaged audience—an authentically engaged one, that is. What do you do to keep your fans not just strategically compliant, but authentically engaged?
SS: I do that through my lyrics. For me it’s imperative that people feel what I’m singing, and they are able to live those lyrics through my voice. I spent a great deal of time choosing not only the right words, but the real ones. Jwe’m lyrics have received so many compliments, so far; and Ou manke’m is being bombarded with comments, expressions of how true and real the words are to anybody in the diaspora. Singing is a way to send messages, and I definitely aim for my fans to be engaged in what I have to say.
AI: Most Haitians settle on the east coast of the US. How did you end-up in California?
SS: I moved to Los Angeles for the warm weather, to continue my education, and to establish connections with other artists. So far it has been a great experience, although I miss my Haitian culture very much.
AI: Haiti has produced impeccable songstresses who went on to become great actresses the whole humanity has claimed for its own—Toto Bissainthe, Martha Jean-Claude, Ti-Corn to name a few. Most of them have long passed on, and they left a legacy, a heritage, if you will, that makes all of us feel so proud and empowered to speak about. Do you see yourself being part of this fulfilling legacy? If yes, how?
SS: Yes I do! I want that very badly. The strategy I strongly believe in is primarily hard work, being consistent and dedicated. I’m sure that these women had to face a great deal of obstacles, but they did not give up. It is also important to keep the audience interested and intrigued. So, bringing something different is important as well.
AI: Sherlee, our conversation has come to an end. Is there anything more you would like to let our readers know? What advice you would like to give to those who dream of following the same path you have chosen?
SS: It’s hard to advise people since I’m myself learning so much right now about this seemingly complicated but thrilling field. (Bursting out laughing, then she takes a deep breath, gazing upward and pondering.) I will be honest and say that it isn’t easy since there’s no guarantee; even when artist is very talented. However, hard work and dedication always pay off. So, if this is really the path you want, you should go for it with your fist raised high because it will be a fight. But in the end, it will be worth it.
AI: It’s been a joy to have you at CSMS Magazine.
SS: The pleasure was mind, I’m certainly grateful to CSMS for allowing me to meet his readers, and I hope they will become fans. Thank you.
Note: You can watch Ou manke’m a video of Sherlee Skai on the CSMS Magazine front page www.csmsmagazine.org